What about after ?
Author: Amanda Hodgkinson
Publisher: Penguin Books
„Memories shrink. Like a soap bar used over and over, they become deformed, weaker scented, too slight and slippery to hold."
Novels wrapped in an intricate wartime story are always heartbreaking. I have read plenty, but somehow Britannia Crossroad 22 has that spark which makes it stand above many others. It is different, so personal, as if it was built with your own fears and thoughts. It is not so much about the Second World War, as it is about the scars left on those who had to face it. When we talk about dark times in history, we usually ask ourselves how hard it is living through something like that, how could one survive? Most of the time we forget to ask ourselves "what about after?".
Can you really move on or go back to the life you had before? Why do we pay so much attention to the battles, to the heroes and villains, but not to the common people’s stories? Why not focus on those lives shaped by the war? Perhaps because these ones usually can not be told. People deny, ignore what they can’t stand to remember. Talking about some memories is like living again the same trauma. You want to bury the painful ones just like you do with dead people. Physically you survived but what about your soul? When you need to survive nothing else matters. We can see that in the very first pages. When asked what is she, housewife or housekeeper, Silvana answers with "survivor".
Readers say this story is about the primal bond between mother and child. I don’t think that books have a strict meaning, they rather reflect, like a mirror, what’s already inside us. Not being a mother myself, for me it is more about distance and time that builds walls between two people, and traumas they are forced to face on their own, changing them so much that they become strangers to each other.
No matter how great the second chance offered by the present is, the couple can’t really enjoy it because each one of them is somehow haunted by the past. Witnesses of a troubled world, their silence hides secrets that make them feel awkward together, like three strangers trying to replay the family game. A role they never actually knew. But how could they, when just a few months after Aurek was born, the war was knocking at their door asking for Janusz’s arm to serve his country. Their reunion should be a great thing, being what they hoped for, but the wife cries every night, the husband dreams about another woman, and the poor kid hates his dad.
Janusz is far from the hero type even if he is to be appreciated for his positive thinking and for being such a hardworking man. During the war he proved to be a weak man, a coward hiding behind a women’s skirt as if the battle gave him the right to forget about morals. He’s too stuck in a bunch of dreams to see how his wife is slipping away through his fingers. How hard were his days of war compared to the woman’s struggle? With a manlike courage, Silvana is rather the hero of this story. The bond with her child is indeed very strong, but I wouldn’t say it to be worthy of admiration. It seems rather a sick one.
The most impressive of all is the portrait of Aurek. While others only need to readjust to the world, he is forced to work harder to be a part of it. Growing up in a nearly primitive and especially hostile environment, the boy does not know what civilization means. His savagery is not to be blamed because that is all he ever knew. Despite his strange behavior, Silvana’s son seems smart and endowed with the potential to adapt even if, inside, he will always be more like a man of the forest. The most heartbreaking secret is the one Silvana hides about him. She may never tell Aurek the truth but, somehow, seeing his own hostility, I’m sure deep down in his soul he always knew it.
I noticed many reviewers talking about the narrative technique used by the author, Amanda Hodgkinson, in this novel and the way she’s mixing the three perspectives with her oscillation between the present (the time spent on Britannia Road 22) and the past (during the war). I have seen this trick many times, but it always ends up being a catastrophe creating confusion and disruption. That is not the case here. Amanda is doing a really great job with how she handles these narrative tools amplifying the dramatic effects of the story. And curdling narration like this really makes sense. The way she’s gathering fragments of her character’s past in order to shape them better and give them a meaning is a reflection of how the characters need to recall their lives, bringing everything to the surface to get a sense of completion before moving on.
The pain does not come from the drama of these people’s lives shaped by the war, but from the things revealed inside you by their story. Britannia Road 22 is not just an address, a fictional house. It is the mask of perfection, behind its closed doors so many shameful secrets are hidden. A beautiful house, survivor of destruction, a stained glass door with a blue bird on it, but if you look closely you will see a crack, just like in the story of the Polish couple. A single crack enough to make it so fragile, letting all of your secrets sneak through and get to the surface. Each of us carries within himself a small war and his past like a ticking clock, a bomb ready to explode any second now, threatening to destroy your life hardly rebuilt on second chances. What once was buried must now emerge. This is the only salvation because something hidden can’t be washed away.
The complexity of feelings described
Unique view of the bond between mother and child
Characters- far from the typical romanticized ideal
Some readers might find the story a bit confusing because of the narrative tools used by the author
If you believe that books about the war are all the same, this one is definitely for you